On the Weekly Torah Portion of Kedoshim


Rabbi Klonimus Kalman’s grave

This week’s Torah portion, kedoshim (Leviticus Ch. 19-20), opens up with a bang. The text says:

וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: דַּבֵּר אֶל כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם:
Y-H-V-H spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the whole Israelite community, and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, Y-H-V-H your God, am Holy. (Leviticus 19:1-2)

The Hebrew word kadosh (קדוש), meaning holy, means different, other, set apart. As such, it is an attribute of God, as the one who is completely set apart from creation, the transcendental reality.

And yet here, the Torah demands of the Israelites—and I prefer not to understand this term as those who share a particular DNA, but rather as the word denotes, “those who grapple with God”—to be holy too. God seems to be saying: I am holy, and if you engage with me and grapple with me, if you do it right, you should be holy too.

But if holy means set apart and different, should “becoming holy” mean withdrawing from the world? The Hassidic text Maor Vashemesh, discusses just that. Rabbi Klonimus Kalman Halevi, the author, starts by referring to Maimonides, who seems to be advocating withdrawal in some circumstances (apologies to women readers: this text was written in the 18th Century):

“If an Israelite lives in a place where evil views and bad leaders prevail, he should leave that place and move from place to place, and from country to country, until one reaches a place of straight Torah and opinions, where he would find rest. And if he cannot find any suitable place, he should seek solitude in deserts and forests in order to run away from evil views and bad people.”

Rabbi Klominus concurs, but only to a point.

“The truth is, that one should indeed escape to the forests and retire from the public in order to save oneself from evil views and evil deeds, but the only thing this can be helpful for is ensuring that one can perform one’s worship of Him, blessed by He. However, one does not gain supreme holiness until one attaches oneself to people of God who worship God in truth, and participate with them with much worship, through prayers as well as through the study of the Torah. The essence of all the mitzvoth (the commandments) is to be in community with other God seekers; then and only then the supreme holiness can be achieved.”

In this, Rabbi Klonimus echoes the ideas of Gautama the Buddha. Buddhism is known for its solitary practices of inward meditation, and there is no more solitary practice than that. However, when asked about the value of sangha, the spiritual community, the Buddha said: “Sangha is the beginning, the middle, and the end of the spiritual life.”

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Another key phrase that appears in this Torah portion is

וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ
Love your fellow as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)

This phrase is known as the Golden Rule. It is the fundamental rule of every culture and tradition that is based on the sacred. Here are a few examples:

Christianity: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Matthew 7:12)

Islam: “Not one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” (Forty Hadith of an-Nawawi 13)

Hinduism: “One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality. All other activities are due to selfish desire.” (Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva 113.8)

Jainism: “A man should wander about treating all creatures as he himself would be treated.” (Sutrakritanga 1.11.33)

Buddhism: “Comparing oneself to others in such terms as “Just as I am so are they, just as they are so am I,” he should neither kill nor cause others to kill.” (Sutta Nipata 705)

How can one love one’s fellow as oneself, when he or she is “so obviously” other? The message of this important, universal principle is that there is no other: ultimately, there is only One, and that One is who we all are. Leyt atar panuy mineh, there is no place where He is not, says the Zohar. This realization, of the Oneness of all, is the highest realization of truth, the supreme holiness.

Sages of all spiritual and religious traditions have been recommending solitary meditation as a means of realizing that oneness. The solitary practice of meditation becomes a key to loving the other, the key to community.

An interesting symmetry emerges: holiness, the supreme “otherness”, is said to be realized ultimately through community; and community, the ultimate of togetherness, is ultimately possible through the deep non-dual, ultimately solitary realization of Self. Community and solitude are two aspects of the same thing.


For the quotes, I relied on the anthology “The World Scripture” http://www.unification.net/ws/

Copyright © 2014 Igal Harmelin-Moria
(Copyright does not pertain to illustrations)